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COLUMN

Franklin's execution won't faze attorney who won his acquittal for shooting civil rights leader

Hate-fueled murders were something Franklin 'chose to do,' Frank Kimbrough says

Tuesday, November 19, 2013 - 9:07 am

Joseph Paul Franklin is scheduled to die in Missouri early Wednesday morning for one of the nearly two dozen murders, but his acquittal for what may have been the most notorious crime of his career forged an unwanted link with a Fort Wayne attorney that remains intact more than 30 years later.

“I thought he might invite me to the execution. I'm glad he didn't. He was a client, not a friend. He was always manipulative. It would be, 'You're still coming to see me,' ” said Frank Kimbrough, who was drafted to represent Franklin by U.S. District Judge Allen Sharp after the itinerant racist executioner was indicted in 1982 for shooting national Urban League President Vernon Jordan in the back outside the Marriott Inn two years earlier.

Some attorneys build their careers on cases that capture the imagination of the public and the attention of celebrity journalists and presidents. But Kimbrough, 71, says he purposefully avoided the spotlight during and after Franklin's week-long trial – perhaps because he believes the charges should never have been filed in the first place.

“My job was the law, not to exploit the case. It was an enormous expense for little public benefit. (Prosecutors) should have just said, 'We already have him put away for 400 years' (on other charges),” said Kimbrough, who submitted a bill of about $30,000 for representing Franklin but was paid under $10,000. “But it was political. The victim was a prominent African American, and there was a lot of pressure (to have a trial).”

The influence of that pressure became apparent during the week-long trial, which was held in South Bend in a futile effort to find jurors who had not heard of the crime that had focused national attention on Fort Wayne. Franklin's claims of innocence may not have been convincing, given his history of violence toward mixed-race couples (Jordan was in the company of Urban League volunteer Martha Coleman when he was shot), but the government's weak case smacked of desperation.

As Kimbrough recalled – and I wrote at the time – Franklin was indicted not for attempted murder (Jordan recovered from his wounds) but for violating Jordan's civil rights by shooting a black man for daring to use a place of public accommodation. That was a near-impossible task under a law passed during the days of segregated restrooms.

To make matter worse, federal prosecutors' own witnesses undermined their case. A security guard who claimed to have seen Franklin in Fort Wayne, for example, claimed he was 5 feet 7 inches tall and had thinning hair – at which point Kimbrough tugged at the 6-foot Franklin's full head of shoulder-length hair to prove it was real. Motel registration cards allegedly signed by Franklin under another name contained no fingerprints.

But the verdict apparently was not obvious to Franklin.

“ 'You're kidding,' he told me,” Kimbrough said. “It was like a game to him. After it was over, he would call me in a jolly voice. But he was a paranoid schizophrenic, always striking out. He thought everyone was against him.”

That rage was apparently forged during his youth, when the boy born as James Clayton Vaughn experienced the poverty and abuse that caused him to seek comfort in the deranged cocoon of white supremacy. Changing his name to mimic that of Hitler's propaganda minister Paul Joseph Goebbels, Franklin ultimately demonstrated his racial superiority by murdering others, including some as young as 13.

“He was dangerous and crafty, always looking for a way out,” said Kimbrough, who said Franklin's use of a wheel chair after being knifed in prison prior to his trial was intended at least in part to convince guards he was incapable of escape. “He would always put his hands on you, trying to figure out if you were strong. The U.S. marshals (in the courtroom) didn't wear guns (so Franklin couldn't get his hands on one).”

Wednesday morning, however, Franklin's manipulation of others may end at last. He's scheduled to be executed for killing Gerald Gordon outside a St. Louis synagogue in 1977, but payment will also be made on behalf of his many other victims – including Jordan, pornographer Larry Flynt (partially paralyzed by a Franklin bullet) and countless others who are not so well known, but no less important.

And Joseph Paul Franklin, be his only client ever to be executed Kimbrough says, it will have been “for something he chose to do.”

Franklin, now 63, later admitted to shooting Jordan, meaning he lied not only to the South Bend jury that acquitted him but to the attorney who so ably defended him and, for a time, even believed him.

So it seems Socrates was right: "A lie never lives to be old."

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.